MARCH 2006 – NO. 4
The first original short story selected by our second Guest Fiction Editor, Peter Orner.
This island poses no significant problems. In this place, I never have trouble finding east. Have you seen this place — this New York? Brother, the spires here are like the temples of Chidambaram in southern India, only a little taller. With that East River, you couldn't miss the direction of the Kaaba, that is to say, even if you wanted to. So there is no excuse here. And then the roads mind it, the citizenry, they call them "streets." Kallol couldn't stop laughing when I said to him — Baba, show to me your 42nd Road. This was back when I first alighted here — of course I get the joke now — ho-ha, very funny. Indeed. But so many of them there are, these streets, laid across this city like the lines on your palm. And on top of that, they have that Broadway Street which runs like the lifeline — top to bottom, like you will live forever around here.
My days all start the same. First that Mrs. Kincaid — and she is from Trinidad — I wait for her to scream and shout like she is selling fresh vegetables. I imagine Mr. Kincaid — a groggy man — twisting and turning in bed, making mild protests like a schoolboy. Under Mrs. Kincaid's voice I can barely hear the sound of their front door's shutting and the sounds of steps into the long corridor. Walking, walking off to the bus stop for his number 76 for Flushing Meadows. Their whole routine is so thoroughly enjoyable, I admit that my tea often just sits in its cup and gets cold. My own Begum used to shout at me, too, when she was alive.
But after she lay down with the earth — brother, what could I do but follow my Kallol to this strange world of New York. So I do what I do everyday that I have been here. After Kallol leaves, I wait for the day to begin. And it begins slowly.
When I got up today for the morning prayers, before Kallol got up to go to office — that filthy newspaper press — I hoped I would be up first. But he was up again before me; who knows if he even went to bed last night. He was sitting on the sofa, his head in his hands. What a lovely September day, father — he says to me. I say — Baba, September is supposed to be green still, not this rust color. Roofs, trees, houses, sky — your New York makes me feel too old. What I don't tell him is New York makes me know what it is like to live with your two feet on two boats — a rent-controlled flat under one foot, and a dead world under another. One time we stood on the balcony and he showed me his office, pointing out the golden planet that sits above the building. Like a little boy he was, very proud, so happy he had become one of them. I told him — Baba, we sent you here for what? This dirty newspaper business? Daily Planet? You could not have done this back in your own city? With Star News or Daily Ittefaq? I dreamed you would be a king in this place — maybe a doctor, engineer or even pharmacist. Kallol — I say — relax, Baba, this is America — land of brave, home of free, surely they can give a little free time? At my remarks, he usually smiles and hands me the newspaper. I read his newspaper every morning. When I first came here, the front pages were still in black and white ink — of course, since that time they have had to print it in color to write about all the blood being shed in distant lands. But that Kallol, he laughs, laughs. He is so busy — flying off here, flying off there. Their greatest defender, they say. Abba — he says — must save world! Must make world go round! He says. I think in my head — what are you, bloody Charles Atlas? With Planet on your shoulders or what? Take care — I say — take care, those angels on your wide shoulders don't get all crushed up. What will they have to say on the Day of Judgment, eh? What will they say if they are crushed up? What will you do then? How will you plead before Him? With all of this good, the bad, and the American-type business? But he flew off anyway — there is no stopping that boy.
Kallol is what we called him in Bengali — a name that means "waves on the water." Even though I know it is not the name he is known by around here. But after we saw the gentle waves on his black hair, my missus said — Kallol, this is his name, baas! No back chat. Like the crests and curls on his head. Even then we knew we would have to send him away. I said to her — Begum, good he has that fair skin, easier to assimilate in America — to conquer his new world, to make a better place us all. Now look at him, goes by such names — Kent! Brother, what happened to Khan? A proper Shahib, he is! But she watched as we packed him off and watched as he left. Not long after the Begum knocked off too, and my world was finished — Phatoosh! Gone! Now there is only Mrs. Kincaid for me to listen to from apartment 7C across the hallway. Another all the other bodiless voice in our long hallway. After the Fajr prayers in the early morning, I sit on my prayer mat and it feels good to blink at the morning sun and it is not even seven o'clock yet. I put another pot of water to boil. These days, what to say, my regularity needs hot water and honey. I turn the knob and try to watch a little television to see if I can spot Kallol on any of the news shows — nothing-doing, no flying about today — must not be much things happening today. Must be that people have forgotten about us over here — must be that the faithful and faithless are coming together to join hands and pray — I don't know. This television, it gives me such an ache in my backside! I bought it at the duty-free shop at John F. Kennedy Airport when I came here. What passes for fun here I could not tell you. Drunks and destitute men and women. Primetime, they call it. I wish I could hire an electrician to fix it. But at least in the daytime, things are a little quieter, a little more bearable. At night when I sit and wait for Kallol, I cannot watch any television at all. Impossible! It is as though night is when they pull out their Kalashnikovs and sticks and begin the beating of our brains. Dishoom! Dishoom! Brother, why bring that hatred and anger into my home? Don't we get enough for free? Of course I knew what America was when we sent our Kallol here; we had done our due study of the place, but that was a different time, and anyway, we had thought he would change things around all the way! But honestly speaking, I don't think it bothers him too much, this shamelessness — who knows what he has learned in our absence. I teach him about ideas like Sabr, the infinite patience. I tell him it is a faithful's duty to try to change things, to do what is right, but who listens? It is true to say that all this talk has pushed him into his closet — to be more accurate, into a phone booth. Now it is just business as usual and then fly-here and fly-there. Work. Work. Work. My poor faithful son, there is no rest for him.
Last Friday, on the local news channel, and this is the local station that shows him the most, I saw a glimpse of Kallol. Of course the reporter chattered away in front of the Empire State Building, or it may have been the Brooklyn Bridge or those Towers — I am still trying to learn about these famous landmarks. The reporter did not know there was anybody else in the picture. But I knew — on the corner of the screen, like a blur he is; I know the way you know there is a dot on an "i" without looking. I wish they could see him the way I see him, then they would know how the sun — that yellow sun — rises in the morning and who pulls the blanket of night over this city at night. They would know who oils the cogs and sprockets of the great ticking-tocking machinery turning in the bedrock under this city. But I am from another world, and I am getting on in my years — Santa Claus, they call me on the streets, cheeky children — yes, I am old but I still know how the machine works. That Mr. Kincaid, with his nine Trinidadian grandchildren — when he finds me in the hallways he pulls me aside, and out comes his fat wallet and with his skinny fingers, he flips through the photos without even looking. I am Kallol's father and I see him for what he is.
I sit by the balcony door and watch for him. This fall, with the warm temperature and what not, it has been pleasant, and I like to keep the door open. This way Kallol can enter quickly without being observed. That is apartment living in our big metropolis. Efficient living. If you lived here you'd be home by now — they say. But this high-rise apartment is tiring me nowadays; it seems to me maybe I have failed to consider this American air is really a little bit different. There is less air in this air, many more inert gases, like the milk back home — more water than milk. I wish there were a garden that could be tended to. Not for myself, you understand — no, I have no interest in gardening; for my Begum — she would have liked that.
I make tea for two hoping that Kallol will stop by. When he is in the area he will occasionally pass by to surprise me. He will walk in through those sliding doors and have a cup of tea with me. I watch television and eat the halvah — it is the green pistachio halvah — looks like you know what. It really startles Kallol — makes him jump! Really puts a crinkle in that dimpled chin of his. But it is his old father's little joke and he will smile when he realizes it is not what he thinks it is. Ha-ho! Very funny! I say — Listen Baba, just because those two in Kansas never fed you any halvah — is it any reason to be scared of it? Must be discerning. It is maybe a little late for lesson, but he needs to know about where he is from — about where he was born. Brother, how much forgetfulness does it take to take your own soil and make poison out of it? How strong do your muscles have to be to lift up your history about like it was a Greyhound Bus and beat it so hard that it becomes your nemesis? I am sure this is not what Kallol thinks about when he is flying about in his single bounds. When he is flexing for this country wrapped in his blues and reds.
There is excitement on the television show — people running, smoke and dust billowing — must be another of those idiot movies. I change the channel, and still it is the same program! This is one problem with this country; Kallol has approximately hundreds of stations, but mostly it is the same program everywhere, hands and feet, hands and feet selling rings and trinkets. The Imam at the mosque on 4th Street has been telling me that — these trinket channels are all he permits his wife and daughters to watch — suits his sense of modesty I suppose; but then he cries to me — Brother — he says — if they keep purchasing ornaments at this speed, I will soon be bankrupt! I think in my head — it is the price of modesty, no, Imam Shahib? It is the price of religion. Everything has a price.
I change channels and all stations are showing the same thing. Where are the channels that show the ocean of sweat of foreigners? Staten Island? Of immigrants who iron this country's clothes, bus this country's tables, or pick caterpillars out of this country's tomatoes? A great shame is falling on this land like a rain. Today, across the television channels, a silence seeps, feeesh! Even though people are screaming and glass is falling. I can't even hear Mrs. Kincaid, who is quite loud even when Mr. Kincaid has gone to work. Up and down our hallway, people's prayers are forming an imaginary border — and forever there will be the this-side and the that-side of that invisible border. This building, full of immigrant housewives and retirees, hums today in their private prayers. Nigerians, Castilians, Laotians, Cape Verdeans, Marwaris, Chittagongians, all like my son — aliens pretending to be familiars, caught on a thin border, eyes focused on making sure that they catch their bus on time. They pray in their low voices to their own gods.
When Kallol came back that night, the cowlick of hair that falls on his eyes hung like a dead bird. I noticed that even his suit was in tatters, there were little spots where the blue and red was still visible underneath his clothing. My eyes are not what they used to be, but I can see the dust on his fingers, the grime and soot under his fingernails from lifting steel girders and stone. He says — Couldn't stop them Abba — he was crying like a girl. I said — Yes — I say. It was late and I had seen it all on the television. I had seen the island close its fingers into a fist of rage. I said — I knew that there was nothing you could do, my son. Your eyes are not all that can melt steel. Inequity and anger will do that, too.
We sat down and watched the news. It was too late, of course, because the fire had spread already, and the cracks in the stone that ran along the grain of the rock had grown, reaching out to far away places. Shifting tectonic plates had made places that were far off closer together and were already making nearer places a million miles away. We both felt the tremor, but didn't talk about it because we knew it was just in our hearts. It was all a matter of killing time. And watching the fate of this new world with forbearance. No, we do not have any problem finding that errant east.
Original cover art courtesy Rob Grom.
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